Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Have Members of Congress become...Ferengi?

The Ferengi Bartender Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space 9

Played by Armin Shimerman

One of the many misperceptions about members of Congress is that congressional recesses are playtime for politicians. Nothing could be further from the truth—particularly the August recess. Members spend much of August travelling their districts and states getting feedback from constituents. Officially, the recess is known as a district or state work period. Members hold office hours, work on constituent problems, and often hold town hall meetings with the public to get their thoughts and feedback. This is an essential part of the representational connection, and is essential to legitimacy in a republic. Both Senator Tester and Congressman Rehberg have been travelling Montana in August to connect with their constituents. And both come back to the state often even when Congress is in session to stay in touch with the folks back home.

Imagine my surprise when I read this article in the Politico, which notes that some members of the House are not holding any public town hall meetings with constituents during the August work period. Even more shocking is the fact that these same members are participating in events where the public can attend and ask questions in a face to face format FOR A FEE. Other outlets have picked up on this (see related stories here, here, and here, and here, and at least one member--after public outcry--agreed to hold an open town hall meeting with his constituents (see here).

Yes, that’s right. You can have access to your member if you are willing to cough up some dough.

One of my favorite television shows is Star Trek—in particular, Deep Space 9. One of the main characters in that show, Quark, belongs to a race of uber-capitalists called the Ferengi. The Ferengi developed a culture that makes Ron Paul’s version of the free market look overly regulated. Everything--and I mean everything—has a price for the Ferengi. You want a government regulator to look the other way? Pay a bribe. If you want to visit a friend in their home, you are expected to pay a fee. The Ferengi society is governed by a series of dictates collectively known as the Rules of Acquistion that help guide individual Ferengi to great profit. There are 286 rules. Here are a few:

Rule 1. Once you have their money--never give it back.
Rule 21. Never place friendship above profit.
Rule 98. Every man has his price.
Rule 285. No good deed goes unpunished.
(Source: The DS9 Encyclopedia,

So, if you want to see your Member of Congress, pay first--up front. In a world where even basic customer service requires a fee, it is sad to see our democratic process become so debased and disconnected from reality. This is certainly not something the Founders ever intended. It would seem that some members of Congress are more interested in learning the Rules of Acquisition than attending to their solemn responsibilities as representatives to meet and learn from the voters who put them in office.

But what is even worse, in my view, is the cognitive dissonance members avoid when walling themselves off from their constituents. Individuals prefer to avoid conflict and opposing viewpoints because it upsets their own personal worldview. The last thing we need is to have members become deaf to the voices of dissent among the folks back home. To use the words of E.E. Schattschneider, the scope of conflict needs to be broadened in politics, not narrowed. Otherwise, policy decisions and outcomes will be made by a select few and not necessarily in the best interest of the whole and of the constituency.

Members who refuse to listen to the voice of the voters and their constituents are not only cheating their constituents, they are cheating themselves. The good news? Voters have an easy remedy at their disposal for members who refuse to engage their constituents come November 2012: the ballot box. And that's a message that any member will be able to hear--constituent town hall or not--loud and clear.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Polarized America--or not.

Read this interesting piece in The New York Times on the August recess and visits members of Congress are having with their constituents. Read it here.

Are Americans polarized like the representatives and senators who represent them in Washington? Recent research suggests, no, they are not. See Professor Morriss Fiorina's work as perhaps the most complete and accessible of the genre.

But here's the kicker. Americans may not be polarized, but the voices of moderation from the middle--the independent voters--may not be heard by those serving in Washington. There's an amazing bit of self-selection going on when it comes to writing their member and showing up at neighborhood meetings with them. Psychologically, individuals try to avoid what is known as cognitive dissonance, which simply means they do not want to have their views challenged and will dismiss information not consistent with their pre-exising views. People who disagree with their members simply stay away. More often than not, members of Congress are preaching to the choir at these gatherings and not really being challenged on their positions.

The moderates--the independents--tend to be less engaged politically. They tend to vote less. They participate in political routines less. The public may not be polarized, but those who engage in the political debate tend to be. The long and short of it is this: until the great middle decides to show up, it is unlikely that the tone and tenure of the political debate will change. Compromise is a dirty word to the ideologically committed.

Unfortunately, politics is--by definition--compromise. The Constitution itself is perhaps the best example of compromise in American politics.

Here's my plea: if America is truly about moderation and compromise as Fiorina's research suggests, then independents and moderates need to start showing up and engaging your members of Congress--or you will never get the change you want. And to those who are on the left or the right, try engaging in folks from the other side of the aisle. If you're a liberal, read The National Review. If you're a conservative, give The American Prospect a try. Never be afraid of ideas. Engage!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

An Observation by Hunter S. Thompson

Over thirty years ago, the astute political observer Hunter S. Thompson wrote: “One of the basic laws of politics is that Action Moves Away from the Center. The middle of the road is only popular when nothing is happening.” Well, something is happening or happened in Washington politics today and President Obama’s ratings are on the downswing. It isn’t because he is leading and so unpopular – quite the opposite. It is because while he played chess with the Republicans in Congress, they were playing hardball to win. Chess is not a game in which you lead – even if it is multidimensional as some of the President’s people claim. Chess takes a careful, often subtle approach – usually too subtle for the opponent to notice. Hardball is played in the dirt and besides strategy, sometimes requires brute strength to hit one out of the park. Chess and baseball have something in common though – both are zero sum games. Winners and losers emerge. The problem with games though is that in the end, no one is really better off for the experience. To misquote UCLA football coach Henry Sanders – winning is the only thing.

The alternative to the zero sum game is a non-zero sum outcome. In these matchups, we can all be winners. We are better off for the experience and hopefully – a synergetic relationship that results in benefits for everyone.

The zero sum/non-zero sum perspective in politics is a dilemma. On one hand, we need a winner in the process – and a loser. A classic zero sum solution. On the other hand, we can’t function as a society when one half stridently disagrees with the other half and no one seems willing to compromise. Traditionally, we look to our political leaders, victorious from a hard fought but substantive election, for affirmation of societal goals hoping that a rising tide will lift all our ships – a non-zero sum solution. It is the difference between Thomas Hobbs’ “war of all men against all men” or Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” and Robert Kennedy’s There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” The first two are inherently zero sum, the second non zero.

The problem is, of course, modern elections are not substantive in nature and great political ideas are not much discussed. It appears to most outsiders that politics is a game without end, without rules, and where everyone seems to lose. How did we get to a place where party identification defines “the other”. Originally a Hegelian term, Edward Said refers to it as the act of emphasizing perceived differences for use in marginalizing people in power relationships. “Othering” can be done with any racial, ethnic, religious, or geographically-defined category of people; the other is different than us. The vitriolic flack columist Conor Friedersdorf, an associate editor at The Atlantic, caught from supporters of Sarah Palin after he reviewed the movie is a case in point (see comments here). Friedersdorf, a young libertarian, should be a natural ally of Palin. Instead, he was mindlessly castigated by her admirers as an “enemy of the state (of Palin)”. The attack was aimed not to move the political dialogue forward but to put down an insurrection. This is the politics of zero sum.

The debt limit debacle is the most serious case in point. Set aside the weeks of dithering and deal making. A look at the final vote reveals a pattern of…… not much. Long time Senators, those who should represent leadership, voted for and against the bill in no discernable pattern except the competiveness of their seat in the next election, freshmen voted for and against, tea party members – the contemporary protectors of the values of our founders, expressed a mixed voting pattern as well; it seems that TP members exhibit the same flexibility in policy positions as other, less principled politicians. Consistency will only take you so far in politics. Fully one quarter of the Senate found a reason to vote against a deal that will supposedly save the republic from foreclosure by China. We can hopefully look forward to some in depth analysis by David Parker on this site soon.

The recent debate mess is classic zero sum. In this case in particular, as evidenced by a poll from CNN – no one liked watching it and no one feels better. Let’s hope for better as we move into the fall campaign season.